Amazon’s Disturbing Plan to Add Face Surveillance to Your Front Door

Recently, a patent application from Amazon became public that would pair face surveillance — like Rekognition, the product that the company is aggressively marketing to police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — with Ring, a doorbell camera company that Amazon bought earlier this year.

While the details are sketchy, the application describes a system that the police can use to match the faces of people walking by a doorbell camera with a photo database of persons they deem “suspicious.” Likewise, homeowners can also add photos of “suspicious” people into the system and then the doorbell’s facial recognition program will scan anyone passing their home. In either case, if a match occurs, the person’s face can be automatically sent to law enforcement, and the police could arrive in minutes.

As a former patent litigator, I've spent a lot of time reading patents. It’s rare for patent applications to lay out, in such nightmarish detail, the world a company wants to bring about. Amazon is dreaming of a dangerous future, with its technology at the center of a massive decentralized surveillance network, running real-time facial recognition on members of the public using cameras installed in people’s doorbells. 

The ACLU and other civil rights groups have repeatedly warned that face surveillance poses an unprecedented threat to civil liberties and civil rights that must be stopped before it becomes widespread. The history of discriminatory government surveillance makes clear that face surveillance will disproportionately harm people already targeted by the government and subjected to racial profiling and abuse — immigrants, people of color, and the formerly incarcerated.

The ACLU’s test is consistent with academic research demonstrating that face surveillance technology is less accurate for darker skinned faces and women. These systems threaten to further entangle people with law enforcement, ripping families apart and increasing the likelihood of racially biased police violence. In addition, this technology puts activists and protesters in danger when exercising their First Amendment rights.

Despite the risks to civil liberties and racial justice, Amazon has chosen to ignore questions from members of Congress and calls from consumers, civil rights groups, and its own employees and shareholders to take responsibility for the consequences of its technology on communities where it is deployed.

This patent application also suggests that Amazon has no plans to stop at identifying people based on their faces. The company anticipates targeting an arsenal of other biometrics, including fingerprints, skin-texture analysis, DNA, palm-vein analysis, hand geometry, iris recognition, odor/scent recognition, and even behavioral characteristics, like typing rhythm, gait, and voice recognition.

Image from Amazon patent
Diagram from Amazon's patent application

Imagine if a neighborhood was set up with these doorbell cameras. Simply walking up to a friend’s house could result in your face, your fingerprint, or your voice being flagged as “suspicious” and delivered to a government database without your knowledge or consent. With Amazon selling the devices, operating the servers, and pushing the technology on law enforcement, the company is building all the pieces of a surveillance network, reaching from the government all the way to our front doors.

Don’t expect Amazon to limit tracking technologies to doorbells or homes. The patent application makes clear that any audio/visual device — such as Amazon’s popular line of Echo products — can be outfitted with the appropriate biometric surveillance features. It confirms that Amazon wants to enable the tracking of everyone, everywhere, all the time. And it’s apparently happy to deliver that data to the government.

The application also undercuts Amazon’s own purported defense of its face surveillance product. The company has told the public that biometrics should only be used by law enforcement as an aid, not a replacement, to human judgment. But Amazon’s patent application is pushing the technology toward automation, removing human judgment from the identification process, and instead potentially relying on data, like arrest photos, that itself is a record of racially discriminatory policing.

Amazon is building the tools for authoritarian surveillance that advocates, activists, community leaders, politicians, and experts have repeatedly warned against. It is doing so without regard for how the technology will be exploited by law enforcement, ICE, and other government agencies prone to violence and racial discrimination. It’s time for Amazon to take responsibility and stop chasing profit at the expense of safety and civil rights.

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Anonymous

This should not be allowed. I own several Ring doorbells and will be getting rid of them and canceling my subscription if this invasion is allowedz

Anonymous

Amazon is already collaborating with ICE. By giving them money with your Ring subscription you are supporting their development of this technology, even before it comes to your neighborhood. A wave of subscription cancellations might get their attention, though.

Anonymous47

If you want a vision of the future imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever. - George Orwell

Pyramidofcontrol

“Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” -Huxley, in a letter to Orwell 1949

Anonymous

Identifying people at my door is a great idea that helps me protect my family. Your paranoia over the existence of some vast conspiracy appears increasingly desperate. Transparency laws allow citizens to easily identify when governments use technology to improve public safety. For a private company whose business model is based on customer trust to secretly share customer data with the government is the height of bad business - which means it’s almost certainly not happening. Please focus on real issues that are actually hurting families today. This panic over face recognition, which has been available for decades, is disappointing. I feel like my donations are being wasted.

Anonymous

oh hey there bezos

The first thing

Identifying the people at your door for you is not the issue.

Anonymous

Why the fuck are you posting this anonymously, if you are all for transparency? Why don't you follow what your highest Panopticon priest Jeremy Bentham preached, who in a feat of his utter fanatism ordered that his corpse be dissected publicly in his testament?

Anonymous

Monopolies don't really have to worry about customer trust, do they? You're very under-informed about this issue. Racial discrimination via automated algorithms is already happening in the judicial system, and this technology is not anywhere near mature or accurate enough to be trusted for this purpose. What you're misunderstanding is the _scale_ of facial recognition that's now being deployed, and the trust that we're now giving it to make important decisions even though the technology is not accurate enough to be trusted, and nothing to guard against abuses.

What will likely happen is that people of color will be targeted by a white neighbor for looking "suspicious" or out of place in a predominantly white neighborhood, and reinforce existing racial biases in enforcement and its users. Amazon's facial recognition tech is embarrassingly bad, where it can't even identify members of Congress correctly. And the ones it labelled as criminals? They were almost all people of color.

https://venturebeat.com/2018/07/26/amazons-rekognition-misidentified-28-members-of-congress-as-criminals/

Stop being paranoid of your neighbors and start looking critically at the tech oligopolies who enjoy virtually unchecked power.

Anonymous

Em, Edward Snowden? Prism? Amazon shares EVERYTHING with the governement, and there is proof

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